27 November 2010

Essential skills for a scientist

I was having a conversation with someone who wasn't sure what he wanted to study in physics graduate school. He was worried that if he chose one field, it would be very hard to make progress, but it would be important work, whereas if he chose another field, it would be easier to make fast progress, but the work might not be so fundamental.

I wasn't sure what to say, so I advised him to take a different perspective:

"Another way you could make a choice is to think about what skills you want to acquire. You want to have the skills you need when the exciting development comes along, so that you can jump into it right away."

Wolfgang Ketterle, an atomic physicist and 2001 Nobel laureate, himself said that skills are important.
Changing fields was a crucial experience for me. Amazed to see how much of what I had learnt before could be applied within the new field, I realized that general skills are much more important than specific knowledge. I thought it would take a long time before I became productive in my new environment, but within months, graduate students who had been working in this area for much longer came and sought my advice and leadership. This experience gave me the self-confidence to venture into new areas, and provided the impetus for my later decision to come to the United States and start once again in a new field.
(Quoted from the Nobel Prize website autobiography)

The question is, what are the important skills for a scientist to learn? I can think of a few:
  • Asking important questions and picking good research problems, i.e. ones that are solvable and interesting.
  • Understanding the big picture and being able to pick out what is essential and interesting from a mess of details.
  • Turning a relatively vague and abstract research question into a concrete calculation or an observable quantity that can be measured in an experiment.
  • Writing (papers and grants)
  • Speaking
  • Managing and training (teaching) students
  • Collaboration skills
  • Life balance and project management
  • Programming skills
  • Math skills
In addition, for an experimentalist in physical science, it is also important to know some signal processing. (My sister contributed a few items on the list.)

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